Hanya Yanagihara’s Man Booker Prize nominee title has been a tome I have been battling to plough through, but having now successfully done so, I have struggled to understand why it did not win. Having recently been informed that the book that wins the accolade must be read three times and still be a stimulating read with which you wish to continue, the Man Booker Prize is an egalitarian award. A Little Life is a book which does not quite hook you in until page 200, but when it does it is purely the disturbingly abused and formidable character of Jude that allows you to persist.
Yanagihara tells of four classmates who move to New York to make their own successes, bound by their friendship and ambition. There is Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter; Malcolm, a frustrated architect and withdrawn Jude, who serves as the crux of the novel. Their greatest provocation, each eventually realises, is in fact the enigmatic Jude. Both his mind and body are tarnished by an unspeakably abusive childhood and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
A beautiful novel about the power of friendship over decades, their bond sees the test of time through quarrels, early career struggles, J.B.’s drug addiction and, most of all, Jude’s alarming past. Before long, all four friends are blessed with immoderate professional success, while two of them rapidly emerge into the foreground, sending the other two back. Jude guards his unfathomable past, but 70 pages into this 700-page novel he reveals to best friend Willemthat he routinely self-harms, while the reader learns that a brutal childhood is behind all of this. Eventually Yanagihara discloses the extent and specifics of the abuse he suffered, while Jude’s relationships with Willem, Harold and Andy claim the book’s attention.
This book does open the doors for any reader to gain a fuller understanding of the after-effects of systemic childhood abuse. Jude, an orphan raised at a monastery, the first site of his sadistic stations of the cross, cuts himself (if you’re squeamish, you’ve been warned), and in one particular harrowing scene, he does actually set himself on fire. For the rest of his life (with the exception of one relationship with Caleb), Jude encounters only selfless love and benevolence: the patron saint of lost causes becomes a lost cause surrounded by saints. Is this entirely plausible?
A stunning weaving of harrowing tales, Yanagihara does expertly incorporate Jude’s past as well as not allowing him to fully overcome this. This realistic depiction does save the novel from other unlikelihoods that sit within the narrative. However, I think the repetition and severe need for several edits lets the novel down and it certainly could have been a perfectly contextual woven tale omitting two hundred pages or so.